IT seems light years ago that Celestial Halo romped home in the Triumph Hurdle – but on Saturday aged nine this endearing and durable character showed he retains all the qualities to mix it with the best of them over a set of hurdles.
Admittedly stablemate Big Buck's was not in the field for his annual victory in Newbury's bet365 Grade Two Long Distance Hurdle but the understudy in the same ownership produced yet another genuine effort under Daryl Jacob to land this three-miler for Paul Nicholls after making every yard.
The Ditcheat trainer said: "Celestial Halo is an amazing horse. He's won the Triumph (2008), been beaten a neck in a Champion Hurdle , was second in last season's World Hurdle, won a Grade Two at Auteuil last May and given so many tremendous performances for the Andy Stewart family.
"When he had a racecourse gallop with Rocky Creek recently at Wincanton I couldn't believe the enthusiasm he showed. Big Buck's is coming along fine. We've got another eight weeks to get him fit for his reappearance in the Cleeve Hurdle on January 25 and if we get him to the World Hurdle, Andy would be happy to run both horses there."
Big Buck's was last in action at this same Newbury meeting a year ago before a tendon injury was diagnosed. Many reckon that if the Stewarts' record-breaker does not return in A1 condition At Fishers Cross would be the one to deprive him of a fifth World Hurdle.
However, last season's Albert Bartlett winner from the Rebecca Curtis stable will have to perform far better than Saturday when 22 lengths behind Celestial Halo following a gaffe two out. It was an accident waiting to happen judged on earlier jumping.
Celestial Halo – trimmed to 14-1 (from 20s) for the World Hurdle – has won 10 and been second in 30 races over hurdles. The only other career success for the Galileo gelding was in a 10f Newcastle maiden for Barry Hills in April, 2007, but his claim to fame on the Flat is finishing seventh – beaten barely three lengths – in that year's St Leger.
His hurdling prize-money stands at nearly £645,000 and he will attempt to swell that in the Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot on December 21.
When Celestial Halo was second in the last World Hurdle stablemate Wonderful Charm finished a remote eighth. Such a stamina test proved beyond the five-year-old who is set to return to the Cheltenham Festival looking much more the finished article – over fences.
With novice chase victories at Fakenham and Wincanton under his belt in the past five weeks he completed a hat-trick, again in Grade Two company, at Newbury on Friday with an accomplished round of fencing for Jacob bar the odd blemish.
He is around 12-1 for the 3m RSA Chase but owner Robin Geffen thinks the shorter Jewson Novices' Chase over 2m4f more suitable. Geffen said: "Wonderful Charm's got so much speed and I don't want to step up in trip. He's a much better horse now after two breathing operations. He had the first op after winning the Grade Two Persian War Novices' Hurdle 13 months ago and then after the World Hurdle he could hardly breath at all, so he had a second one in the summer.
"He'll be raced now in Grade Two or Grade One novice company – there is a Grade Two on New Year's Day at Cheltenham and the Grade One Scilly Isles Chase at Sandown – but wherever he goes it will be ground dependent."
By David Briers